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Felicity Garrard

“ A candle loses nothing of its light when lighting another”. Kahlil Gibran

The word “volunteer” is derived from the Latin voluntas - “free will” and, according to the dictionary, has a range of meanings from a part-time soldier… to an uninvited plant in the garden! However, the French translation “bénévole” is much more specific in suggesting the compassionate aspect of volunteerism – the act of helping others without regard for monetary reward. The desire to help one’s fellow man, or at least to lend a hand when a need arises, is a universal human trait, probably harking back to a time when survival depended on a high level of cooperation with the tribal group or pack.

Countless organizations and institutions across Canada depend on willing volunteers to enhance or, in some cases, make possible, their functions and activities. Organizations in Ontario alone report a volunteer complement of 7.8 million people*, who collectively contribute about 791 million hours of volunteer time, the equivalent of approximately 412,000 full-time jobs! In Ottawa for instance, to cite some cultural examples, the National Gallery relies on a cadre of 300 volunteers to help deliver its educational programs and other art-related activities, and the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, depends on more than 400 unpaid individuals to administer its highly successful annual event. In the health sector, each of the Ottawa Hospital campuses is supported by numerous volunteers in both the administrative and medical areas, and there are many other institutions that simply could not function without volunteer help, an example being the May Court Palliative Care Hospice, supported by over 600 dedicated people in the community. Furthermore, volunteers are always needed for youth clubs and to provide comfort to the elderly, for organizations involved in sport and recreation, for libraries, and for specialist clubs associated with hobbies and recreational activities. The list is endless, the opportunities to help likewise…

It is of course true that volunteering, helping others, is almost always a two-way street. Apart from the personal satisfaction and the sense of contributing to the “greater good”, there are often practical benefits for the volunteer. According to the 2000 National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (NSGVP) conducted by Statistics Canada, more than three quarters (79%) of volunteers polled said that their volunteer activities enhanced interpersonal skills, such as understanding people better, motivating others and dealing with difficult situations. Over two thirds (68%) said that volunteering helped them to develop better communication skills, while 63% reported increased knowledge about issues relating to their volunteering. More directly, volunteering often provides an opportunity to acquire job-related skills or improve job prospects, especially among younger volunteers. Over half (55%) of volunteers aged 15 to 24 said that they volunteered for this reason. As well, many new Canadians volunteer to develop work experience and to practice language skills.

Older Canadians are a key segment of Canada’s volunteer force. As people retire earlier and live longer, so their post-work years may be as long as time spent in employment. Once the novelty and the heady sense of freedom of release from a nine-to-five job wears off, many retirees feel a need to “give something back”, to contribute some of their skills and experience to society at large, often locally, through community help. They may also find they miss the daily interchange and camaraderie of the workplace, or the sense of belonging and connectedness that being part of a larger organization provides, and so seek new ways to become usefully re-engaged. Furthermore, for some, volunteering after retirement may be a welcome way to revive talents, interests and skills neglected during a lifetime given over largely to career and raising a family.

In some cases the desire to volunteer may be counteracted by the increased mobility of seniors, many of whom may prefer not to be tied down when finally they are free to travel the world! For the others however, the question most often asked is “How and where do I begin?” According to the NSGVP survey (above), the most common way is to be asked by someone within a particular organization to join in. Talking to friends and acquaintances already volunteering in an area of one’s interest is a good place to start. It may also help to avoid, unwittingly, becoming involved in a group with a less-than-stellar track record, or one that is experiencing leadership problems or internal friction. Another route is simply to approach the organization of your choice and advertise your availability to the Human Resources department or volunteer coordinator. If you belong to a religious organization, you will probably already know of opportunities to serve either within that organization, or as part of its outreach ministry. Further thoughts on how to find the right volunteer opportunity can be found at the following link – "Ten Tips on Volunteering Wisely" , provided by a US organization, Independent Sector.

Ottawa, as the nation’s capital, is particularly rich in volunteer opportunities owing to its many museums and arts bodies, federal (but also provincial and municipal) government institutions and organizations and NGOs.

The central agency for volunteer information and referral is:
Volunteer Ottawa – “Linking Volunteer Energy to Community Needs”.
Address: Suite 402, 2197 Riverside Drive, Ottawa K1H 7X3,
Telephone: (613) 736-5270,
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Volunteer Ottawa's excellent website provides information on upcoming events, such as the Mayor’s the Mayor's Walk for Volunteerism in September each year as well as to links to other useful sites,such as a list of the over 300 member agencies and to lists of current volunteer opportunities in Ottawa ">
These are divided into categories: youth-friendly, family-friendly (suitable for parents and children together), special events, Festivals and One Day opportunities. It also provides a link to the Citizen newspaper's weekly Volunteer Round-up column">

Felicity Garrard

• * Ontario statistics quoted from the 2003 National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations.
• The Statscan Report (NSGVP) referred to above is scheduled to be updated this Fall, 2005
• Other dates of interest:
December 5th - International Volunteer Day
April 2006 - National Volunteer Week



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